[Review] The White King by Leanda de Lisle

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Less than forty years after the golden age of Elizabeth I, England was at war with itself. The bloody, devastating civil wars set family against family, friend against friend. At the head of this disintegrating kingdom was Charles I. His rule would change the face of the monarchy for ever.

Charles I’s reign is one of the most dramatic in history, yet Charles the man remains elusive. Too often he is recalled as weak and stupid, his wife, Henrietta Maria, as spoilt and silly: the cause of his ruin. In this portrait — informed by newly disclosed manuscripts, including letters between the king and his queen — Leanda de Lisle uncovers a Charles I who was principled and brave, but also fatally blinkered. He is revealed as a complex man who pays the price for bringing radical change; Henrietta Maria as a warrior queen and political player as impressive as any Tudor. Here too are the cousins who befriended and betrayed them: the peacocking Henry Holland, whose brother engineered the king’s fall; and the magnetic ‘last Boleyn girl’, Lucy Carlisle.

This is a tragic story for our times, of populist politicians and religious war, of a new media and the reshaping of nations, in which women vied with men for power. For Charles it ended on the scaffold. Condemned as a traitor and murderer, he was also heralded as a martyr: his reign destined to sow the seeds of democracy across Britain and the New World.

I clearly remember when I was studying my A-Levels, sitting in my history lesson and learning about Charles I and the Divine Right of Kings. I remember studying the causes of the English Civil War and thinking “this has to be the most boring part of English history I have ever had the misfortune of studying”. Little did I know that when I moved on to University I would end up falling in love with the English Civil War and specialising in the battlefield archaeology of the Battle of Cheriton for my dissertation. I’m not sure what it was that suddenly changed my mind, only that all of a sudden I realised that there was so much more to it than the Divine Right of Kings and ship money. I began to find the whole era incredibly romantic. I became embroiled in the history of the battles. I even, for my sins, joined the Sealed Knot as a musketeer in the Royalist Henry Tilliers Regiment of Foote. A life long love had been sparked and I devoured anything I could get my hands on about those torrid years of war. In the past few years that love has taken a bit of a back seat to the Italian Renaissance, but it’s always been there niggling in the back of my mind, and when I heard that Leanda de Lisle was working on a biography of Charles I I knew I had to read it.

De Lisle’s “The White King” was one of my Christmas gifts and I got stuck into reading it as soon as I possibly could. Now, I don’t want to sound cliched, but from the moment I opened it I literally could not put it down. And it was the first time that any biography on Charles I had gripped me in such a way. I’ve read a lot on the ill-fated King and I will be the first to admit that a lot of it is incredibly heavy going, dry reading. In “The White King”, de Lisle does the near impossible – she makes the history of Charles Stuart accessible. She makes it exciting. She goes beyond the whole ‘these were the mistakes Charles made and they were the only causes of the war’. It truly makes a refreshing change in pace.

This book is a balanced view of the man that many in England saw as a tyrant and a traitor. Not only that but de Lisle gives a sympathetic view of the King and his beliefs. She weighs the causes of the War up and comes to the conclusion that although Charles did make mistakes, he wasn’t the only cause of a war that literally split England right down the middle. We see a man who loved his family and who believed that what he was doing was right. We see him fighting for what he believed in and at the same time we see parliament doing the exact same thing – they believed that what they were doing was for the good of the country, as did Charles.

Charles I wasn’t all black and white. His grey areas proved to be his ultimate downfall – despite being brave, he believed so wholeheartedly in his divine right that it proved to be his end. And what a sad end it was. I have never read a better account of King Charles I’s trial and execution, nor have I been practically moved to tears when reading about his incredibly brave end.

This wonderful biography is truly a pioneering work in the history of the Seventeenth Century and I would even go so far as to say that this book should be considered the Bible on the history of Charles I. Whilst it tells his story, it also offers insights into lesser known parts of his history – including a short affair towards the end of his life as well as offering up previously unknown correspondence between him and his wife. Reading this book has rekindled my love of the English Civil War and made me want to pick up my own work on it again.

An excellent biography and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the Caroline Court.

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